Two weeks ago, Helena Public Schools announced that it would turn the families of children with unpaid school lunch debts over to a collection agency. You’d think this policy would win widespread public support, but, no, there was an outcry. In the days that followed, Superintendent Jack Copps said the district would use collections only as a last resort.
According to Erin Loranger of the Helena Independent Record, officials say the district’s unpaid lunch debts come to about $100,000. Beyond that big, round number, alarmingly little is known. District business manager Janelle Mickelson says she doesn’t know how many indebted families had qualified for free lunches but had simply failed to fill out the application. The district isn’t even sure if the debtors know they’re behind. Mickelson says the schools haven’t been consistent about contacting them, though they have been sending notes home in backpacks.
That’s just standard billing practice: First you give a note to a child, and if that doesn’t work, you hire loan sharks. It’s inaccurate and hyperbolic to describe debt-collection agencies as loan sharks, of course — they don’t lend money themselves, they just buy other people’s bad debts, charge 10 percent interest, and then, once the debt has grown enough to make it profitable, start legal proceedings. In the meantime, there’s harassment.
Most people who pursue careers in education like children, so it’s unclear why the Helena schools would unleash usurers upon them. Superintendent Copps gave us a hint, though. Although the district does not know how many families in debt qualify for free lunches, Copp told Loranger that “a lot of that debt load is carried by people who clearly can afford the indebtedness that’s there, and they just simply aren’t taking care of their responsibility.”
“In this age of means-tested kindness, we might ask ourselves how much we are willing to pay to make sure no child gets something they don’t deserve.”
Let us take a moment to appreciate the word “simply.” In English, it is useful shorthand for “I haven’t thought about this and I don’t plan to.” Even though the district lacks basic information, Copps is sure that most of the debtors are lazy, not needy. This is a convenient perspective, since it relieves the district of its responsibility to determine how much of its unpaid debt is owed by families who qualify for free lunches anyway.
I admit that would be a lot of work. The district would need to keep track of which families applied for free lunches and how many qualified but didn’t do the paperwork. It would need a billing system to record purchases, payments and billing contacts, as well as bookkeepers to run it. It would need another system in the cafeterias to keep track of which kids get lunches and how they pay for them, requiring work hours and equipment to keep it running. All of this money and personnel — plus whatever the district invests in untangling its current debt situation and hiring a collection agency — will go to making sure that no kid who doesn’t deserve it ever eats for free.
It sounds kind of absurd when you put it that way. Which kids, exactly, do not deserve lunch? Maybe we can all agree that the ones with rich parents who sent them to school without money or sack lunches should not be allowed to eat. But how about the kids whose parents don’t have any money and didn’t fill out applications? Maybe they should go hungry to teach their folks a lesson about responsibility.
If you are one of those rational types who is not moved by the appeal to hungry children, then consider the efficiency of a system that invests money and labor in two purposes: serving lunches to children, and making sure that some children don’t get lunch. That, right there, is an optimization problem. At a certain point — maybe not where we are now, but perhaps near the point where no one knows who owes what money and for how long, and the whole thing is a hundred grand in the red — it is easier to just give free lunch to everyone.
Feeding kids is not hard. Making sure you feed only the kids who deserve it is. In this age of means-tested kindness, we might ask ourselves how much we are willing to pay to make sure no child gets something they don’t deserve.
I would rather watch a rich kid eat free food than watch a poor kid go hungry. I’d rather see parents who don’t fill out forms continue their laziness than see them choose between the electric bill and feeding their children. Hell, I’d even pay a little money for the privilege. To do that, though, we have to stop thinking in terms of which children deserve what and start thinking in terms of what we can do for them. The fear that somewhere, somebody might be getting a free lunch costs us a lot of money. It might just cost us our decency.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @Dangerbrooks.